False self? Narcissistic injury? What are we talking about here?

Distinct from the more stigmatized and pathology-laden terms narcissism and narcissistic, narcissistic injury refers to the process by which the development of the self is impeded or disrupted in some way. Such a developmental self disruption might result in a person experiencing anxiety, depression, a feeling of un-aliveness, feelings of emptiness, or a perpetual state of imposter’s syndrome.  Donald Winnicott, a pediatrician and psychoanalyst, contributed important ideas to the field of psychoanalysis and early childhood development. His concept of the “true self” and “false self” provide a framework for understanding a particular kind of self disorder (Winnicott, 1960/1965). He suggests that, for some, a disruption in relationships made hiding away the “true self” while behaving like a “false self” the best strategy for the survival of the psyche. While Winnicott did not directly link his ideas of “true and false self” to narcissistic development and narcissistic injury, there exists a natural connection between these concepts.

What might healthy self development look like?

As we develop from early infancy, our sense of self is dependent upon what is reflected back to us by those around us. Our emerging expressions of self must be quickly and accurately noticed by someone close to us and then fed back to us. We feel upset, we nonverbally communicate our upsetness, our upsetness is seen by another, we are responded to as though we are upset, and we come to know ourselves as being upset. We must be known to know ourselves. The people most likely to do this for us, given the regularity and importance of our interactions with them, are our caregivers.  If this process goes right enough in our daily existence, we chronically build up a sense of self that is full of our aliveness—vital, robust, and spontaneous in nature. It is known to us and communicated freely to unfamiliar others that we encounter. We are deeply sure it’s us because we have so consistently known it to be true. However, the degree to which this process of accurate reflection goes well varies across child and caregiver relationships.

What makes narcissistic injury so difficult to identify?

Because this process between caregiver and child begins so early in life, and because our relationships with our caregivers are so pervasive in creating our sense of reality (think David Foster Wallace’s concept of water in “This is Water”), we may not notice or remember the early conflict we were placed in when our early self-expressions were not accurately seen or reflected to us. Our caregivers, doing as best they could with what they had, may have been unable to see, pay attention to, or verbalize back to us just who and how we were. They might have even attempted to squash or extinguish parts of us that they could not tolerate. The absence of a good-enough chronic and accurate feedback loop of reflections may be difficult for us to identify and it may affect us in ways that proves difficult to accurately attribute.

How can we imagine the creation of a false self?

If the process of accurate reflection is disrupted, we are faced with the need to respond to it. We may find ourselves trying different ways of protecting ourselves, ultimately landing upon the method that provides the most benefit and the least cost given our circumstances. For some of us, the creation of a false self might be the very best way to stay safe. If you are having difficulty imagining what the creation of a false self might have been like, here’s a metaphoric way to think about it:

A plant is raised from a seedling in a greenhouse. The nature of the soil, air, and amount of sunlight is enough for the plant to sprout from its husk. But when it arrives at the soil’s surface, it realizes that in order to receive sunlight, it must stretch itself. To get the full benefit of the sun, the plant must find a way to get its leaves “over there.” And so, it uses all its might and contorts itself and reaches to be in the sun’s beams. The plant does not realize the strain it might be putting on its stems through this reaching, it only knows if it has contact with the sun or it does not.

Consider another plant:

A plant is again raised from a seedling in a greenhouse. The nature of the soil, air, and amount of sunlight is enough for the plant to sprout from its husk. But when it arrives at the soil’s surface, it realizes that, as good as it would feel to stretch upwards towards the sun, the sun’s beams are too harsh. Inevitably its uppermost leaves bear too much heat, lose water, and then die. And so, despite its inborn wish to grow up towards the sun, it grows sideways, taking shape along the soil’s surface. In this metaphor, the contorted and sideways positions symbolize the false selves constructed in response to narcissistic injury (i.e., a mis-matched sun). But unlike plants, who might be perennially flexible without much personal injury to adapt to the provision of the sun, we might find ourselves in adulthood contorted, strange, aching, or exhausted. We might find ourselves in an unnatural position with our true self hiding in plain sight.

How does therapy help?

Working with a therapist who is sensitive to identifying these early experiences, who well-enough accurately understands, and who is open to understanding ways in which they might recreate these early experiences, provides a hopeful path forward. In therapy we are able to explore whether or not this has been a part of our story and, through this process of discovery, we can create new ways of reshaping ourselves—growing up and out from our most rooted place as our truest selves.

Winnicott, D. W. (1965). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. From D.W. Winnicott’s, The maturational process and the facilitating environment: Studied in the theory of emotional development (pp. 140-152). New York, NY: International Universities Press, Inc. (Original work published 1960)

Dr. Grace Hazeltine is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Culver City, working with adults, adolescents, and couples of diverse identities, specializing in anxiety and relationships. Dr. Hazeltine is also the president of the WILA alumni association, facilitating engagement of clinicians with new and ongoing themes in psychotherapy through continued education opportunities.